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Concern as the gambling industry embraces AI – BBC News

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  • By Nicola K Smith
  • Technology of Business reporter

Image source, Alban Grosdidier

Image caption, Danny Cheetham started gambling when he was 18

“I remember setting alarms for 4am on payday, anxiously waiting to gamble as soon as my salary hit my account. By 8am, I found myself seeking loans to survive the month.”

Danny Cheetham started visiting local bookies aged 18, gambling on the Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs). It wasn’t long before he transitioned to online games. “The ease of access and the solitary nature of online gambling exacerbated my habits,” says Mr Cheetham, now 34.

The latest wave of artificial intelligence (AI) has given gambling firms a new tool to work with. Companies say it enhances the customer experience.

But Mr Cheetham, and others, are not so sure: “While this technology undeniably enhances user engagement, it also has the potential to deepen addiction. The ethical dilemma here is whether the pursuit of profit is being prioritised over the welfare of individuals prone to addiction,” he says.

Scotty McKeever dismisses such concerns. AI is at the core of the service offered by his firm EquinEdge.

EquinEdge uses AI to analyse data such as horse performance, track conditions, and jockey and trainer statistics. It crunches this to generate a metric, such as the probability that a particular horse will win. The hard work has been carried out by AI but gamblers must still decide how to interpret that metric – which is, as EquinEdge describes it, “the fun part.”

Image caption, AI can give casual gamblers pro-level information says Scotty McKeever

“AI has made it easier than ever before to offer consumers the kind of data and analysis that used to be the province of pros,” says Mr McKeever.

He does not think the application of AI will make any difference to problem gambling. “It’s a disease no different than any other addiction. Those who suffer from it aren’t going to be helped by making gambling more boring or challenging, nor will they be harmed by making gambling less boring or challenging.”

Many other firms are using AI to tailor the experience for gamblers.

Betby supplies technology to gambling firms and uses AI to personalise the betting experience and predict churn and lifetime value.

Danil Emelyanov, head of AI at Betby says the company’s recently launched AI tools allow it to “prioritise relevant content for users based on their past activity, current actions, similarities with behaviourally close customers, and prevailing sports trends.”

Like EquinEdge, Betby provides additional information about specific events to help customers make informed decisions on their wagers too, presenting recommendations to users.

But as well as offering the gambler more of what they want, the AI is also being developed to recognise “key behavioural shifts” that might indicate the customer has a problem. That might be repeated losses or loss chasing, impulsive behaviour and overall spending.

Betby’s algorithms depend on data such as user account activity, frequency of bets, amounts wagered, and types of bets placed. “From this data the technology can identify key traits which could indicate problem gambling or fraudulent behaviour,” says Mr Emelyanov.

Image caption, Betby looks at user behaviour to offer them other gambling options

Mr Cheetham, who got help and is now debt free and studying for a Masters in AI, says the use of AI in addressing problem gambling does offer “a ray of hope”.

“If employed ethically and effectively, this technology could indeed be a critical step in combating gambling addiction.”

Charles Ritchie, co-chair of the charity Gambling with Lives, which supports families bereaved by gambling-related suicide, is certainly not convinced by the industry’s efforts. “Any claim that AI could be used by the gambling industry to reduce harm is just a smokescreen. We’ve clear evidence from many of the bereaved families we support that the AI algorithms are simply not acted on.”

Zoë Osmond, chief executive of GambleAware says, “All talk of using AI to improve customer experience needs to be carefully offset and managed to make sure AI becomes a force for good in spotting the signs and preventing gambling harm.”

Image source, Paul Clarke

Image caption, Claims that AI can protect gamblers is a “smokescreen” according to Charles Ritchie

The situation will have to be carefully monitored as online gambling is getting more popular. In the UK, the most recent Gambling Commission figures show that in the last four weeks of March 2023, 26% of the public had gambled online, up from 20% in March 2019.

One of the fastest growing areas is live betting, or in-play betting.

In the UK, in-play football bets were placed by 51% of active betting accounts, according to research in June 2022.

It is also more profitable for gambling companies, than traditional bets made before the game.

In November, US sports data company Genius Sports said that it now takes about three times more in fees for in-play bets than for traditional pre-game bets.

All that growth and innovation might be great news for the gambling industry, but experts says it needs to act responsibly.

Kasra Ghaharian, a post-doctoral research fellow at Las Vegas’ University of Nevada, has spent the last year researching the ethics of AI within gambling.

He believes there are challenges in using AI to address problem gambling – not least how to define at-risk gamblers and therefore train AI algorithms to recognise them.

His research also underlined the ethical paradox – on the one hand AI can benefit player safety and enhances customer experience, but on the other hand there are concerns about how it can be used to exploit players, encouraging them to spend more than they can afford.

“Businesses need to balance this, and I think making a commitment to using AI for player safety should be a foundational component of any gambling business’ AI strategy.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article you can visit BBC Action Line for information and support.

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